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> Not If, But When: Prepare a Disaster Recovery Plan Today
post Jun 4 2010, 02:48 PM
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here are two types of law firms: those that have experienced a disaster, and those that will. “Disaster” can come in many forms, any of which is unexpected and can ultimately mean the demise of the firm.

The goal of disaster planning is making a recovery that ensures the firm’s survival. If, as a lawyer or a law firm, you think of planning for disaster recovery as a luxury you can ill afford in a time of increasing cost and profitability pressure, think again. Considerable research suggests that you are jeopardizing the future of your practice through unpreparedness and through missing an opportunity to gain competitive advantage.

Not every disruptive event is a disaster. Professional liability, malpractice claims, client relations problems and poor business judgment are all problems for the firm, but they are also part of everyday business.

A true disaster is an event or circumstance that can drive the firm out of business: a terrorist attack on your office tower, a pandemic like the SARS scare, a flood or other natural event with prolonged effects.

You cannot survive such an event unless you begin a firm-wide assessment aimed at conceiving and implementing a disaster recovery plan.

How to Conceive the Plan

Review each practice area in the firm separately. Ask how long it can afford to be “out of business” and what resources it would need to get up and running. Create your overall plan to take account of the risk scenarios of each practice area. Transactional lawyers often have timeframes that are measured in hours. Litigators’ timeframes may run from the few hours needed to secure a temporary restraining order, to years for bet-the-company disputes.

Assess your firm’s readiness, using a multi-step approach. Review (or establish) your insurance coverage, clearly understand what’s included, and consider additional liability coverage for natural disasters. Create a complete inventory and photo-document your entire office with all its contents to prove losses. Back up all computer data, and store data backup as well as important records and documents off-site.

Assume a widespread disaster that will overwhelm localized telecommunications or storage facilities of paper and electronic records, as well as the local infrastructure of extra office space to temporary staffing. That’s why you should think outside your usual geographic frame of reference. A firm with multiple offices can in principle rely on other locations for emergency data backup and office space. Small firms or sole practitioners can follow the same principle by creating relationships with peers in other cities.

Take off the organizational blinders. Accounting and technology may have off-site backup for their immediate functions, but often neglect to extend it to word processed documents, imaged case files, client relationship data files and personnel records. Often the electronic information in these categories is password protected, and only the people that intimately use them have the passwords. A prepared organization should ensure diversified right-to-know access.

How to Create the Acceptance

Developing a disaster recovery plan would be an overwhelming task for one person. You will need acceptance, involvement and suport from a broad crossection of the firm to create the plan. All key firm stakeholders and leaders must be involved or at least lend their full support; without an investment in the plan’s creation, they won’t feel an obligation for its implementation. That includes key HR, technology and financial staff, as well as senior management and partners.

Do not, however, make the mistake of creating a large, unwieldy group to create the recovery plan, on the assumption that the more people involved the more acceptance there will be. As in most organizational efforts, such groups merely produce inertia rather than results.

Instead, put together a small task force, populated with people who have power to make decisions, plus young and innovative firm members, each of whom is known as someone who gets things done. Make the group as diverse as it can be, and treat its work as the most important activity in the firm: pay participants bonuses or some other form of extra compensation, give them resources and treat them with respect.

How to Evaluate Organizational Readiness

No matter how good a disaster recovery plan is on paper, it must be regularly reviewed and tested. Once you do create a plan, review and revise it regularly to keep it from going stale and becoming useless.

More importantly, the firm must periodically pretend there is a disaster, implement the elements of the plan, and change those aspects that didn't work as well as desired.

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